The Olmec and a Biblical Perspective of Ancient History
When I was a child, we would sit together as a family and watch documentaries about ancient history. My parents would mute or forward through places where the narrator talked about certain things; ideas about history that were secular. The Bible did not talk about that stuff, so young ears did not need to hear about it. But a young mind starts to connect the dots, begins to wonder why the only way to look at ancient history is from a perspective that doesn’t agree with the Bible. As I got older, I realized that the realm of interpreting ancient history has been largely left up to the Non-Christian crowd. This passive acceptance of a secular worldview is hindering Christians in their understanding of history. Instead of seeing God’s special design for mankind, we get lost in the popular speculation that ancient man was less intelligent or less capable than we are today. Adopting a Biblical worldview when looking at ancient history is something every Christian should consider. If Christians were to peel back the layers of secular speculation and get at the realities of ancient man, they would see that everything secular historians present as evidence fits perfectly within a Biblical model.
From a Biblical perspective, man was created in the image of God. This implies that man was created fully formed, intelligent, and creative. Don Landis, the general editor and head of the team that produced The Genius of Ancient Man, says that if we assume man was created specially in God’s image as intelligent and creative, then we should find evidence of that all over the world. That kind of evidence would manifest as the ability to farm land and domesticate animals, and to make musical instruments and work metal as seen in Genesis chapter four. All across the ancient world we see evidence of ancient people who built civilizations based on these criteria. From the start, ancient man from a Biblical perspective would have been equipped to form advanced cultures with organized social and religious lives, the technology for construction projects, and more.
A secular view of ancient man stands in sharp contrast to the Biblical perspective. Where the secular view paints ancient man as a plodding half-human that struggles to invent the wheel, a Biblical perspective reveals an intelligent, fully formed human. Secularists see clearly that ancient peoples produced cultures and monuments that stagger our modern minds. But they debate how exactly their model of ancient man could have accomplished all these things. Harold K. Schneider, an economic anthropologist, wrestles with some of these difficulties in his paper on culture change. The concept of culture change means figuring out how a people group in one place acquired the skills or attributes of another people group in another place. Schneider says that culture is something passed from “generation to generation” (10). Moreover, “any particular item of culture is ordinarily historically determined and only rarely invented.” (10). That idea does not fit with the secular assumption that ancient man started off as less intelligent as modern man. Schneider acknowledges this when he talks about “[t]he theoretic paradox that exists in much thinking about culture change, claiming on the one hand that some cultural invention is far more complex than previously thought and then hypothesizing that despite its improbability it was replicated in two or more places.” (15). Even though Schneider adheres to a secular perspective in his writing, the ideas presented imply that there is a “greater complexity […] than has been previously acknowledged” in regard to ancient man (14).
Alice Beck Kehoe, a professor of anthropology, deals with this complexity in her book Traveling Prehistoric Seas by looking at the example of prehistoric boat-building. In her attempt to debunk the theory that Christopher Columbus discovered America first, she goes into great detail about the boat-building capabilities of ancient peoples. It is common to assume that boat-building was simply beyond the reach of ancient man according to a secular model. However, Kehoe encourages her fellow scholars to look at the “remarkable antiquity of ocean crossings and recognize several millennia-old major traditions of shipbuilding and navigation.” Kehoe refers to bamboo rafts and other watercraft across the globe, abundant examples of basic sorts of watercraft. It was on these basic models that Kehoe theorizes the larger seafaring vessels were based.
From a Biblical perspective, this comes as no surprise. Bodie Hodge, a researcher for Answers in Genesis and the author of Tower of Babel, reminds us of the great boat builder from Biblical history. Noah would have passed down his knowledge as long as he lived, and that knowledge would have passed from generation to generation. The knowledge of boat building would have remained in any people group that retained the practice of handing the knowledge down, which is an element of culture growth that even Schneider recognizes. Another researcher from Answers in Genesis, Larry Pierce, picks up on Noah and the Ark too. He reminds us that the Ark was 450 long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. Moreover, it was only the first in a long line of sea craft made by ancient man. Pierce notes the “rapid advances the ancients made in shipbuilding technology in just a few centuries.” His prime example of ancient sea craft is a war ship built by Ptolemy Philopator between 244-205 B.C., which was 420 feet long and could have carried up to 7,250 men. Throughout the ancient world, we are seeing evidence presented by secularists that fit perfectly with a Biblical model of ancient man. The realities of ancient man point back to a Biblical worldview. But, perhaps a brief example will help illustrate these concepts more clearly.
The subject of some of those childhood documentaries was the ancient civilization of the Olmec. The Olmec were an advanced mystery culture that appeared in Mesoamerica and had caused heated debates within the scholarly community for years. The Olmec could have occurred naturally through a gradual growth of culture. However, some say the Olmec were too advanced to have occurred naturally. If not natural, then they must have had help from an outside source, perhaps from across the ocean in what is called transoceanic contact. Both of these theories are operating within the bias that ancient man evolved and started off as less intelligent then we are today. In the case of the Olmec, we cannot know for sure by which method they became a thriving culture. However, we can look at the secular evidence for both possibilities and see if it aligns with a Biblical model of ancient man. While this will not prove one way or the other how the Olmec developed, it will help illustrate that a Biblical worldview answers some of the questions about ancient history.
Scholars use the theory of transoceanic contact as an alternative to the natural growth of the Olmec culture. The idea behind the theory is that the people of Mesoamerica were contacted by another culture from across the ocean. According to the theory, these seafarers passed on the knowledge and technology required to make the people of Mesoamerica into the advanced Olmec culture. For a secularist to use the theory of transoceanic contact is to admit some possibility that ancient man was intelligent enough to build a ship and navigate the oceans in the first place. Schneider rejected the possibility of such contact happening by accident or people simply drifting to the Americas. He was of a similar opinion to Kehoe, who has already shown us from a secular perspective how capable ancient man was of sea travel. From a Biblical perspective even transoceanic contact fits with the model. Ancient man was intelligent enough to build seafaring vessels and pass that knowledge down for generations.
From this example of the Olmec, we see several things stand out. Secularists struggle to explain how the Olmec cultural could have gradually become so advanced when their traditional model points to a version of ancient man that is less intelligent than modern man. Whereas a Biblical perspective sees ancient man as intelligent from the very start, so the progression towards an organized, advancing culture is expected instead of being a surprise. And for the transoceanic contact theory, both sides see that there is evidence for boat building on a small and large scale all across the ancient world. The Olmec remain a mystery. As mentioned before, it cannot be proven if the Olmec occurred naturally or if another people group influenced them through transoceanic contact. However, we have seen that both options are possible from a Biblical perspective.
The Bible supports of model of ancient man that is intelligent and creative. Enough to build cities, organize economies, and expand to every corner of the globe. The Bible also supports a model of ancient man that has the intelligence to harness technology such as the boat. When Christians adopt a Biblical perspective and apply it to ancient history, they will find that it does fit. A Biblical perspective can explain ancient history without the need to abandon the field to an entirely secular opinion. When my parents used to fast forward through those parts in ancient history documentaries where the narrator said things we did not agree with, I wish they would have let it play. Then afterward, sit me down and explain how I should not blindly accept or be afraid of a secular opinion of ancient history. The Bible, the foundation of my faith, provides a perspective that applies to ancient history and adheres to the facts perfectly.
Hodge, Bodie. “From Ararat to the America’s – In a Few Thousand Years?” Answers in Genesis.
22 Sept. 2006. Web. 08 Mar. 2016
Kehoe, Alice Beck. Traveling Prehistoric Seas: Critical Thinking on American Transoceanic
Landis, Don. The Genius of Ancient Man: Evolution’s Nightmare. Green Forest, AR: Master,
Pierce, Larry. “The Large Ships of Antiquity.” Answers in Genesis. 1 June 2000. Web. 08 Mar.
2016. Originally published in Creation 22, no 3 (June 2000): 44-48.
Schneider, Harold K. “Prehistoric Transpacific Contact and the Theory of Culture Change.”
American Anthropologist 79.1 (1977): 9-25. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.